Anatomy of a Moral Panic

We’re now in the aftermath of the East Coast quake, which hopefully has awakened us to the fact that the earth is not calm, unchanging, placid, cute or (paraphrasing Camille Paglia) a proper or possible object of pity. Ideally, this is a time for investigation, reconsideration, logic, and prudent action. The mere fact of Manhattan’s complex of faults – a magnitude 7 earthquake in which would generate up to $200,000,000,000 in damages and untold casualties – should give us pause about where we waste our money.

So it was in a mood of concern that I clicked upon a story about safety stupidity at a nuclear plant site in Virginia. All of the site’s seismographs, the article wrote, had been removed in the mid-1990s – a decade and a half ago – due to budget cuts. Outrageous!

Wanting to learn how such a thing could have been during the Clinton era (and could have lasted more than 130 weeks into the Obama era), I clicked on the link to a site provided in the article, clickable in the very sentence revealing the outrageous seismograph removal. Once there, I was perplexed to find a general page about Virginia’s seismic profile, specifically its earthquakes. A string search for “budget” – to find about the dangerous economy measure – returned only one sentence.

Some of these instruments were stationed around the North Anna Nuclear Power plant, but in the 1990’s, due to budget cuts, most of the North Anna sensors were taken off line.


I went back to the story, the one that linked to that very sentence. There it was, the central contention, the (to use our vulgar culture’s money word) money shot.

According to the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy (DMME), the Virginia Tech Seismological Observatory (VTSO) removed all seismographs from around the plant in the 1990s due to budget cuts.

How had some become all?

Something tickled my intuition. I looked at the DMME page again, and noticed that the VTSO was an academic organization completely separate to the nuclear plant site’s management – and that the seismographs that had been removed from the nuclear plant site had only been VTSO’s own. The partial seismograph removal hadn’t even had anything to do with the plant’s seismic safety systems at all.

And then I looked at the comment thread, and the motivation for this entry began. Dozens of comments, one after the other, piling hate: The Rich (capitals original), profit, “industry spokesmen” (quotes original), Reagan, sycophantic regulators, “The Greedy Bastards in Wall Street and the sleazy CEOs [who] will bring this Country down,not AlCraka or AlQaeda,” “Lots of fracking going on in that area and they don’t want any evidence that they might have caused earthquakes. Check out this analysis[:]…,” Eric Cantor, “millionaires and billionaires [who] need their money[,] so fuck all safety, environmental, and people concerns.” “Skimping on nuclear effort in favor of the war.” “[T]erribly sad and dangerous!”

An anti-Eric-Cantor commentor summed up a number of frighteningly violent people who said things like he did: “That’s good news, maybe some day the radiation will kill all of congress and we can start over”

And on and on and on.

I became curious, next, at how widely this non-story had spread. A few Googles returned a greater list than I had imagined. The expected conspiracy sites, right and left and beyond, were there. But a few altered terms, and I began to see progressive sites – who pride themselves on empirical facts and critical thinking – and our mainstream were all covering this story – without doing the most elementary fact-checking. I offer the following selected rogues’ gallery to document the penetration of this completely false story in both coverage and uncritical, often raving, comments: &×1799848 & & & & & & & & & & & &

What we have, in sum, is a classic moral panic. The following distortion process took place:

Earthquake -> Anxiety -> Scanning process to detect threat -> Fear of nuclear power + Some of VTSO’s seismographs removed + Budget consideration -> Rich Republicans ignoring humans for profit -> Seismographs removed -> All seismographs removed due to Rich Republicans -> We, the Real People, are again in deadly peril due to selfish actions of a few outcast Others among us.

A perfectly circular system, and perfectly evidence free.

And the hundreds of venomous commenters largely believe it’s the Other Side that Others people and hates them and is scared. We, by contrast (they also believe), the life-loving Human Beings, are concerned with good, with life, and would never pursue the course of darkness and evil that those Others are. They must be rooted out, those Others. Since they do not care for our lives, really, perhaps we …

And so it goes.

Not one person of the hundreds of haters, and bloggers, and in some cases professional journalists, thought critically. Evidence, and thinking that perhaps the opponent was not utterly craven and insane, was the last thing on anyone’s mind. This is why we are where we are, in the tense Mexican stand-off of our era, evidence free, each sides’ fingers on the triggers of the firepower directed against the Evil Others.

This is what comes of seeking the lowest common denominator and going for the instant instinctive hit on the limbic system, rather than being a complete human being – which includes the virtues of self-control, logic, and a presumption of innocence until guilt be – proven.


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